The image in the public imagination when it comes to the early days of space exploration is probably one of a chimp being helped into or out of a shiny silver nosecone. The chimp would, of course, be wearing a NASA jumpsuit of some kind and possibly one of those goldfish bowl helmets. However, the historical reality is of course somewhat different.
The first monkey launched into space was Gordo. He was a squirrel monkey who rode Jupiter AM-13 into orbit on December 13, 1958. He survived the launch and a brief trip into orbit. Sadly, the failure of a flotation device in the nosecone of his vessel meant he could not be recovered alive.
Gordo's legacy as the first “space monkey” was carried on in 1959 by a rhesus monkey called Able and a spider monkey called Baker. Able and Baker were sent into orbit aboard the Jupiter labeled AM-18 in May of 1959. They survived both the trip and the recovery becoming the first creatures to do so.
The procedure of sending animals into space carried on. In 1961, a chimp called Ham became the first ape in space, followed by Enos in November of the same year. Their sacrifice, and the test results gained from their missions, made it possible for much more famous names to be launched into orbit and eventually to the moon.
The United States Air Force gathered 65 toddler chimpanzees from Africa in the 1950s. The Air Force enlisted them in research for the space program. The period between January, 1958 and July ,1960 was a time of outstanding success for the United States space program. It was also the period during which the United States Army made its contributions to the nation's space effort.
After arriving at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, the chimps were used to test the effects of space flight. They were trained to do tasks on the mission by getting bananas for performing correctly and receiving electric shocks for making mistakes.
On January 31, 1961, chimponaut Ham blasted off in a Mercury capsule labeled MR-2. This flight took off before Alan Shepard became the first American in space. Ham’s capsule suffered a partial loss of pressure during the flight. Fortunately, Ham’s space suit prevented him from suffering any harm. During the flight Ham had to push a lever within five seconds of seeing a flashing blue light. During pre-flight training, failure would result in electric shock to the soles of his feet. Ham’s performance in space was only a fraction of a second slower than on Earth, demonstrating that tasks could be performed in space. Ham’s capsule splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean and was recovered by a rescue ship later that day. NASA’s archives say, “Ham’s survival and performance, despite a host of harrowing mischances raised the confidence level of the astronauts and capsule engineers alike.”
After the flight Ham lived for 17 years in the National Zoo in Washington D.C. Then he lived in a zoo in North Carolina before dying at the age of 27 on January 9, 1983. Ham repeatedly appeared on television, and even on film with Evel Knievel. Ham the Astrochimp was buried at the International Space Hall of Fame in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
The second chimpanzee in space was Enos. He got on the Mercury capsule which orbited the Earth twice on November 29, 1961, paving the way for John Glenn’s historic flight. During the mission, one of the capsule’s roll thrusters malfuntioned, causing it to tumble out of control. Later in the flight, the reward system also malfunctioned. Instead of being rewarded for a correct decision and shocked for pulling the wrong lever, the signals became reversed. But Enos performed flawlessly despite the malfunction. He died shortly after his flight.
The Space race between the United States and the Soviet Union lasted roughly from 1957 to 1975. The Astrochimps had paved the way for Astronauts Alan Shepard, John Glenn, and the first people on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin aboard Apollo 11 with Michael Collins. Missions to other celestial bodies continued even to the furthermost part of our solar system with the discovery of a new planet. Today, the United States is working together with Russia, China, Japan and several other countries for their space research and exploration.